Census Data Feeds Government Intervention
by Martin Masse
It’s interesting to note that the first general census in North America was conducted in New France in 1665 by the then-intendant of the colony, Jean Talon (who has a big street and a metro station named after him in Montreal). Talon had been sent to North America by Louis XIV’s finance minister, the famous Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
Colbert was the master bureaucrat of his time. He used his considerable powers to direct French economic development and to increase the prestige and revenue of the French state. His version of mercantilism, the interventionist doctrine popular in all European countries at the time, even bears his name: colbertisme.
Talon was of course a follower of colbertisme and he had all kinds of good ideas to “stimulate” the colony’s development, which then numbered about 3,000 inhabitants. But first, he had to know more precisely the state of the colony. How can you plan the economy and tell people what to do with their lives if you don’t first have a clear picture of the situation?
There is a page on Statistics Canada’s website devoted to the first statistician on the continent, which explains very well what censuses were for in Talon’s time, and are still for today, which is to help governments “manage” societies:
As Intendant of Justice, Police, and Finance, Talon’s tasks were to stimulate the economic expansion of New France, increase the colony’s self-sufficiency and bring order to its financial administration. He was a man of enthusiasm and vision, and although he ranked below the Governor, he soon became the real manager of the colony.
After collecting his statistics, Talon put them to work. He was responsible for everything from taxes to health, from bridge building to chimney sweeping, and his influence touched every facet of government, and of the day-to-day lives of colonists. He used knowledge gained from the census to develop the colony in many directions.
Fast-forward 350 years, and who do we hear denouncing the Conservative government’s decision to scrap the mandatory long-form questionnaire of the census? All those whose job it is to plan and manage society’s development. There was only one such bureaucrat in the 1660s, but today there are hundreds of thousands of them in Canada, at all levels of government and even beyond, in all the parasitic “private” organizations and professional fields that depend on government to conduct their business.
You know who you’re dealing with when a unanimous chorus of protest emerges from organizations such as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Institute of Planners, the Canadian Economics Association, the Canadian Council of Social Development, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, francophone minority groups, women’s groups – and the list goes on and on.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve heard that it would become extremely difficult for governments, municipalities and community groups to make decisions regarding education, health care, income inequalities, immigration, urban planning, and countless other fields, if the government goes ahead with its decision. A Liberal MP, Marlene Jennings, said that visible and linguistic minorities could suffer (that is, might get less government money) because the demographic studies that help government organizations and others hone in on the problems in certain regions rely on the results of long-form census surveys.
Despite the modern jargon, Talon would find the arguments entirely familiar. As a professor of Urban and Regional Economics reminded us in The Gazette, “enlightened policy decisions can only be taken if the government and its advisers have a good idea of what is happening in Canada.” Or hear this unnamed statistician asking in the Globe and Mail: “Should those who collect and spend our tax dollars on matters determined to be in the public interest not do so with the most informed statistical information possible?”
A census can only gather accurate information with the use of widespread coercion and intrusion in people’s private lives. Whether or not masses of citizens find it worthwhile to protest officially is not the point; this in itself is enough to oppose it from a libertarian perspective and the government was right to justify its decision on this basis. But everyone should also be aware that statistics are not just any neutral information that is useful to have.
As the great libertarian economist, Murray Rothbard, explained half a century ago:
Certainly, only by statistics, can the federal government make even a fitful attempt to plan, regulate, control, or reform various industries – or impose central planning and socialization on the entire economic system. If the government received no railroad statistics, for example, how in the world could it even start to regulate railroad rates, finances, and other affairs? How could the government impose price controls if it didn’t even know what goods have been sold on the market, and what prices were prevailing? Statistics, to repeat, are the eyes and ears of the interventionists: of the intellectual reformer, the politician, and the government bureaucrat.
Without their eyes and ears – or at any rate, with poorer eyesight and hearing – the interventionists will find it more difficult to defend their work and they might lose some legitimacy. Which is why we should enthusiastically support this decision to scrap the mandatory long-form questionnaire.
Now, if only the government had been a little bit more coherent and scrapped the thing entirely instead of replacing it with a voluntary questionnaire sent to more households that will cost more, produce less reliable data and be a source of unnecessary controversy for years to come. Perhaps industry minister Tony Clement really believes his lines about the new data being as reliable and useful as the data collected the old way? That would not be surprising, coming from a government that has shown almost no inclination to cut spending, stop managing the economy and get out of our lives.
Reprinted from The Western Standard.
July 30, 2010